Bonni Cohen: Capturing Humor and Urgency in An Inconvenient Sequel

by Margaret Gardiner August 2, 2017
Al Gore with Bonnie Cohen and Jon Shenk

Al Gore with directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk on the set of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power

Jensen Walker© 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

“The climate crisis is not a partisan issue. It never should have been, but it has become one. We have to win it back as a universal issue because we all need to be concerned and care about it.” So says Bonni Cohen co-director of Participant Media/Paramount Pictures’ An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the follow-up to Al Gore’s documentary: An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which won him a Nobel Peace Prize (2007) and propelled him into a second career, trying to get global leaders and big business to a focus on the greenhouse effect.

Science supports that fossil emissions are creating severe weather patterns and rising temperatures that are melting the caps, and raising water levels. Since the documentary was shown to packed houses in Cannes, Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Accord, forcing the makers to return to the editing booth for an update. “The current version was altered very subtlety. We added a title card at the end of this film that acknowledges 157 countries signed the Paris Agreement, and that in June 2017 Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Climate Accord. Then we go on to say, if President Trump will not heed it, the American people will. The film ends with a collage of video installments of citizens and leaders around the US and the world, taking up the work that we all committed to in Paris.”

Cohen, who credits her quest for storytelling through documentaries to her Yiddish upbringing in upstate New York, got to be a fly on the wall, tracking Al Gore through his tireless quest. Not only did they visit sites that show de facto the retreating caps and other severe consequences, like weird tides, extreme storms and weather patterns, but they also tracked the negotiations to turn naysayers into activists. One of the biggest wins was getting India on board with the Paris Agreement. The emerging country, while acknowledging the need for industry to change, pointed out that developed countries have had 150 years of spewing pollution while making technical advances. Emerging nations feel the penalty of ‘clean air’ costs, would stifle burgeoning economies. Part of the drama of the documentary was getting India to step away from that stance. Bonni credits not only Al Gore, but Christina Figueres, the former climate change chief, in pulling off the coupe.

Brad Hall with Bonnie Cohen and Sara Dosa

Director of Policy and Research Brad Hall, director Bonni Cohen (center), and co-producer Sara Dosa on the set of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power.

Jensen Walker© 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

 

“Christina is a feminist hero because she has risen in this world that is very difficult. The UN is very hard for women to move far in, she's just a firecracker; she's unbelievable. In observing her that day, and I feel like the reason that she has been successful, and the page that I will take out of her book as a woman, is whenever you get into a negotiating position you have to acknowledge the perspective of the other side, and make the person sitting at the table feel like you heard them, in a way that is authentic. That opens them up and makes the trust build, so you can ask for what you need rather than taking a more combative stance. I think as women we often feel on the defensive, so it is very normal for us to go into negotiating situations and feel that we have to be argumentative to justify our case. Willingness to remain open to the other perspective is truly the key to success.”

She also noted the inspirational discipline and optimism of Al Gore. “Al spent many years after an Inconvenient Truth being berated, drawn over the coals, by all kinds of people – all the climate deniers, all the hatred that was brewing between the two party system in this country, was being directed at him. He not only had to survive the loss of election, but now he also had to survive this. We made the decision to open the film with a juxtaposition of the hatred and name-calling on the part of the climate deniers against the visual beauty of Greenland and the devastation as a result of the greenhouse effect. That was to put truth against the absolute absurdity of the hatred of that language. We have seen Al do that in public when deniers deny or the hatred brews to the surface. When the negativity begins, he will always calmly resort to, fact and articulate explanations. There is no good reason to get your hackles up. It doesn't do any good. Movements over the years, whether it is the civil rights movement, the women’s, gay rights or the environmental movement, the non-violent, articulate approach to winning has won the day in the end. I have become more convinced than ever that calm considerate, fact based, articulate explanation and steady resistance, will win the day.”

That resistance to hostility is something Cohen identifies with:  “I made a film about Guantánamo Bay. It took me to Afghanistan to interview somebody who had been returned back home. One of the men refused to speak to me on the basis that I was a woman. I had to feed questions to the cameraman, which is a situation that hadn't happened to me before. I was utterly dismissed like I wasn't even standing there. It brought home the reality that I luckily don't have to face everyday. Of course, it was minor in comparison to what many women go through on a daily basis, but it’s something you have to experience because it's hard to understand. There have been greater and lesser versions of that depending on where I have been.” She laughs disbelievingly, adding, “But that kind of thing can happen here, in the United States, as well, depending on who you're interviewing.”

Cohen is forthright on the issue of succeeding as a documentary director while raising children. “There’s the supposition that something in society is disallowing women to raise a family and also have a career. I wanted to raise my kids and I also wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. It is relevant to call it out. Women have been conditioned to never feel like we are in the right place. If you are making a film, you are not home with your kids. If you are at home with your kids you are not out in the field making a film. You never have the sense that you are in the right place. That is not the feeling that men understand, or know. I gave up a lot early in my career, in order to be there for the kids. I co-directed. I took up producing which allowed me to be home more. I stayed really involved in projects I cared about. I understood that I had to do it through a slightly more creative and different way, than purely being able to direct films, because the kids were small. Women are inevitably in the position, when they want to have kids and be with their children, to have to figure out creative ways to make it work.”